The OF Blog: Personal reactions to several recent attempts to create "essential epic fantasy" lists

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Personal reactions to several recent attempts to create "essential epic fantasy" lists

As I've grown older, I've become somewhat more reluctant to join in anything that smacks of "genre community."  I have stayed out of recent discussions of recent snafus and dimwitted social commentaries regarding gender, race, class, etc. in large part because they are so repetitive in their genesis/retort/sniping that it seems to have become more an elaborate dance of several OCD people than anything substantially new or different.  Although I have not yet announced a "retirement" from anything "genre community" related (like Nick Mamatas did in regards to writing SF/F/H fiction), I typically feel relegated to the sidelines where those who (in)voluntarily are watching a vicious cockfight stare with a mixture of morbid fascination and acute revulsion.

So I should have been excited to see something positive emerge from online discussions (well, belated excitement, as I was on vacation this past weekend to Vicksburg and missed the initial discussions) regarding "essential epic fantasies."  It seems that there was a Twitter-initiated round of lists done by four people, three of whom I follow on Twitter and the fourth I have no ill feelings, along with an alt-list by another writer/blogger I follow on Twitter.  I note my personal feelings for the list makers here in order to make clear that this is nothing personal in regards to them, but frankly those lists were problematic at best.

The first problem I had with these lists were with the ways that the list makers chose to define "essential."  It may be the pedantic literature/history teacher in me, but any "essential" literary list should be, y'know, essential for a substantial body of readers.  Cherry-picking a few classics of (mostly) Western literature and then presenting them on a relatively equal footing with the likes of Brandon Sanderson, Jacqueline Carey, David Eddings, and others of their ilk is rather asinine, to be honest.  For these comparisons to work, especially for those who are not enamored with the idea of "epic fantasy" being an ancient literary mode, there has to be more connections than surface-level similarities.  It might seem easy to include a work such as The Epic of Gilgamesh due to its ancient roots and stories involving Sumerian myths, but the purpose of that narrative (namely that within the stories are embedded elements of Sumerian religious belief) differs wildly than a pedestrian work (OK, "pedestrian" may be considered mild by some) by David Eddings.  There just are not any real solid connections made between the selections, which in turn makes these lists feel less "essential" and more like "OK, I like some rather crappy works, but in order to give my list a patina of respectability and to prove that epic fantasy can be more than the wasteland of the lesser-talented writers, I'm going to include a few world's classics that influenced writers several chains up the "love and theft" line from the Sandersons and Brooks of the world, regardless of whether or not it makes sense to mention these two groups in a single pairing."  If these lists were more humbly entitled "epic fantasy favorites," it might be less attention-grabbing but also more appropriate.  The books on the lists for the most part are very underwhelming, with generally only a few works written in the past 130 years that arguably should be read by well-educated readers.

Beyond the need for a better, more sound rationale for having such an "essential" set of lists in the first place, these lists (as is often the case with list generators) demonstrate the deficiencies in the list creator's own reading.  This is not a pejorative in the sense that I am saying they are under-read (virtually everyone will have large reading gaps due to linguistic and cultural reasons), but a note regarding the futility of creating a comprehensive list by one's self.  In reading through the lists, I found myself thinking of works that contain elements of epic mode that were not discussed.  The below-listed are works that are culturally significant for large parts of the world's population:

Orlando Furioso
The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas)
Don Quixote
The Thousand and One Nights
The Epic of Sundiata
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The Kalavala
The Norse Eddas
Leaves of Grass
Gerusalemme Conquista (Jerusalem Conquered)
Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
Absalom, Absalom!
Tales of Genji
La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream)
The Ramayana
With Fire and Sword
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Even these are a tiny fraction of the memorable songs/dramas/poems/prose that are romances/use epic mode/phrases/imagery.  But most come from other traditions than Protestant-tinted Anglo-Saxon sources.  Some of the concerns differ from what Anglophones may be accustomed to, but each is much more "essential" when it comes to (inter)national literary traditions than any list of 1970s-2013 works will likely ever approach.

Considering that it is an almost Sisyphean task to devise a list of 10-50 "essentials" of the "epic fantasy" mode ("epic fantasy" being in scare quotes due to questions regarding its uniformity of form), what should be done beyond dropping "essential" from the title?  Perhaps there should be more reflection on the implied form of "epic fantasy" itself?  What value does that term possess today outside of its (pejorative) connotation of being the realm of barely pubescent youth, mostly Westerners in cultural traditions, who view it as the literary equivalent of the bombastic music of 1970s hard rock musicians such as Led Zeppelin (n.b.  I actually enjoy Zeppelin's music despite their shortcomings in the lyrics and treatment of women departments)?  That is the question that perhaps should be addressed more fully before setting out to write out lists that are questionable in their contents and in their cultural value, at least for those who did not grow up enamored with pulp fictions.


Ian Sales said...

To be fair, I was careful to say my list was in no way "essential". It was simply a list of fantasy novels/series I thought were good.

Lsrry said...

Yes, I should have noted that; I was thinking for the most part of the four original lists and not your alt-list, Ian, when I wrote my post.

Ian Sales said...

I'm fully aware I'm not that widely read in epic fantasy (which is no surprise, given I'm not especially fond of it as a genre). But I think a larger point you make, that Anglophone readers will generally restrict their canons to English-language, is a consequence of the fact that English-language literature - especially genre - is hugely dominated by Anglophone writers. It takes effort to read outside that, and few readers make that effort - or indeed are encouraged to by genre commentators and venues.

F said...

The name is "nibelungenlied", not "Nibelungenleid" ("Lied" = "sond", "Leid" = "suffering", "woe").

Other than that, a nice list!

F said...

That was supposed to read "Nibelungenlied"...

Jared said...


Liz Bourke said...

I disclaim responsibility for the word "essential" in the titling. My interpretation of "essential" tried avoiding a universalising sense. Instead, I thought of it as denoting a list that I find personally essential for my own understanding of "epic" qua fantasy.

Mind you, I didn't actually explain my thinking. And I'm limited, in the main, in what I've read - I can go Greco-Roman classics but a lot of the works of the European medieval period is a blank slate to me, and while I've explored some of the medieval Arab literature, quite a lot of that doesn't fit so well...

Jared said...

Oh fine, if Liz is going to be all mature about this - I actually thought I explained "essential" (with quotes) pretty decently in my list. I wanted a reading list that gives a contemporary reader an overview of what the hell is happening in epic fantasy today and how it got here.

That did result in some rather shallow trend-spotting, as you identify - mostly because my pet thing is progression (or lack thereof). Something appears in Ye Olde Times as x, then pops up in 1982 as y, before eventually winding up as z (or, in a few cases, mingling with a and b to become q).

Anyway, whatever. MAOR SANDERSON.

Lsrry said...

Like I said, there was nothing personal in my comments. I'm just riffing on all the lists that I did read and found the heterogeneous lists more to be a symptom of the ill-defined moniker of "epic fantasy" than a sign of that presumed sub-genre's diversity.

I'm someone who's aware of both the world's classics and the current pulp fictions and I question the strength of the links that some make between the two. Compared to say Jean-Marie Blas de Robles (Where Tigers are at Home), I find the works of say a Joe Abercrombie, even taking into account the different genre and narrative approaches and ambitions, to be a work that wouldn't yield much extra on a re-read. Plug in most, if not all, of the other names on those lists and compare them to some of the better contemporary works in other genres and on the level of "literary quality," very few would be viewed as being vital works of cultural literature.

Yes, I know this opinion runs counter to the mindsets that led to the creation of these lists, but I posted my thoughts mostly because I thought it is best to state my principled skepticism toward a sub-genre that I do read on occasion. I don't have the full contempt of it (even though I do have increasing reservations about some of the field's themes and motifs) that others have, but here's what occurred to me as I was writing this response: how do y'all go about (if you choose to do so) rebutting the criticisms that I make? It would seem that there should be many valid defenses of epic fantasy in regards to its literary value that could be made rather than just providing a too brief justification followed by a hodge-podge of works that made little sense to me (considering that I've sampled or read at least a quarter of the works on each list) as an aggregate.

Yes, I'm like that annoying pedantic teacher that I said I was near the beginning of my post :P

Lsrry said...

Oh, and F, I corrected my typo (could have sworn that I typed "lied."). Been almost two decades since my last German class, but I know full well what "lied" is (shamefully, I recalled first the Horst Wessel Lied :( ).

Anonymous said...

Larry, which 'epic' fantasies would you think approaches the appropriate qualities e.g. re-readability?

I would nominate Erikson's Malazan / Forge of Darkness from a personal perspective but yours?

Jesse said...

Firstly, couldn't agree more with the criticism of putting modern epic fantasy in the same bag as the classics. Both may be sweet, but one's an apple and the other is an orange.

Secondly, thanks for the list of non-English "epics". I have read about half of them, heard of another couple, but there were a handful I'm going to follow up on.

Thirdly, I would like to add a few books you've probably heard of, and may or may not have read. (If you have intentionally excluded them, I'd be curious to know your reasons.) They are the remaining three Chinese classics: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en, Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Huzhuan and A Dream of Red Mansions (aka A Song of Stone, and various other names) by Cao Xueqin. The Tale of the Heike is also an epic Japanese story worth reading.

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